Robert E. Kohn. New Close Readings of The Crying of Lot 49. Brentwood, MO: Mira Digital Publishing, 2011. 216 pp. Paperback, $10.49.
Writing in 1987, twenty-one years after the publication of Thomas Pynchon's second novel, critic Alan Wilde prematurely claimed, "The Crying of Lot 49 has been combed over thoroughly and well for all its possible meanings." Twenty-five years later, further meanings are still be teased out of Pynchon's tangled tale, supporting Frank Kermode's earlier claim that Lot 49 "is loaded with hidden meanings, and although there will be a consensus as to certain of these, there is no suggestion that the process of interpretation need ever cease." Both remarks are quoted by Robert E. Kohn in his new book (on pp. 2 and 25, respectively), an attempt to uncover more of those "hidden meanings."
Trained as an economist, Kohn's method is to propose a model, such as the assumption a certain book influenced Pynchon, run a simulation to find words and concepts common to both texts, and then see if the model implies or yields "facts capable of being observed," as economist Milton Friedman put it in Essays in Positive Economics, which Kohn cites (3). He goes on to quote Friedman's blithe admission, "Truly important and significant hypotheses will be found to have 'assumptions' that are wildly inaccurate descriptive recommendations of reality, and, in general, the more significant the theory, the more unrealistic the assumptions" (6-7). Emboldened by this model and by the freedom Roland Barthes granted to readers upon announcing the death of the author (4), Kohn runs a number of simulations on Pynchon's novel, acknowledging that he may be wrong in some of his assumptions, but grateful nonetheless that those assumptions have "given me insights into aspects of the novel that I wouldn't have had otherwise" (97).
So, in Chapter one, he acts on the assumption that Pynchon read E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel prior to writing Lot 49--a safe assumption, given its popularity at the time--then proposes as a "corollary hypothesis" that "the fact that Forster's book was made possible by 'a bequest in [William Clark's] will to Trinity College" suggests that Pynchon was thereby inspired to make the protagonist of his novel the executor of a will (45). If this strikes you as probable, or at least a possibility that cannot be ruled out with 100% certainty, then you'll find Kohn's book a goldmine of such nuggets. If, on the other hand, you consider that a meaningless coincidence, and probably the furthest thing from Pynchon's mind when he decided to make Oedipa Maas an executrix, then you'll probably throw the book at the wall before finishing it.
The book would have been more suitable titled New Intertextual Readings of The Crying of Lot 49, for each chapter pairs Pynchon's novel with a possible influence: Aspects of the Novel in Chapter one, Henry Adams and J. R. Pierce in Chapter two, followed by chapters on Rachel Carson; Loren Eiseley and Charles Darwin; various authors on plate tectonics; The Tibetan Book of the Dead; the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; critics Roland Barthes, Paul Virilio, and F. …